Disclaimer: This is not an attempt to chide my friends in advertising but more to throw light on how PR is more of a strategic business function and not merely a support function.
Of all the venerable questions, — Paper vs. plastic? The chicken or the egg? — the one that marketers struggle with most is whether to invest marketing dollars in advertising or public relations.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when the answer was more clear-cut. If you needed a campaign to drive awareness by hitting target audiences with a sustained frequency, then advertising was the way to go. Your only limit to reaching your prospective buyers was the depth of your pockets, and if they were deep enough, you could carpet bomb the airwaves about your grand opening or fill pages in print and online with ads touting your new product.
On the other hand, if your marketing challenge was one of credibility — let’s say that new product is revolutionary or needs some handholding to explain just how it works — then public relations was likely a better fit. Story placements in key outlets not only gave you the space to go into granular detail about the magic of your product or service, including some hosannas from happy clients, but they also provided that third-party validation that can give you instant legitimacy.
There are, of course, marketers who go down both roads, reaping the benefits of a dual strategy, one discipline helping amplify the other.
In my personal experience, in the last two decades of representing agencies as well as companies, I have noticed that some of the agency’s greatest successes have been as a business partner to the advertising agency brethren.
For those who can’t afford both advertising and PR and need to opt for one or the other, the choices today are not as straightforward. That’s largely because public relations has expanded its tool kit to include tactics that enable us to tell our clients’ stories on an on-going, sustainable basis.
Advertisers no longer have a monopoly on frequency or even reach. Neither on the ability to craft the perfect message nor on the capacity to precisely target key demographics. That’s because we PR professionals, expert storytellers that we are, have now embraced content programs as one of the most effective platforms for telling those stories. Content programs now allow us to do all that and still deliver messaging that establishes credibility and lines of expertise.
A case in point: Let’s say you run a local fitness center, and you not only are looking to raise your profile but give prospective customers a taste of the kind of experience and benefits they would get from enrolling.
Come to us in the “old days”, and we could work with you on a story placement in the local business or even lifestyle section of the local paper, perhaps pen a regular fitness column now and again and put some PR muscle behind events, such as the grand opening of a new location. Maybe we could find a place in the local business publication for a feature on the founder’s brilliant business acumen.
But beyond that, it would be a considerable challenge to drive a sustained earned media campaign, especially given the local nature of the company.
Not so with a content marketing program. First, we could create content on all kinds of facets of your business: various training programs, advice on nutrition and diet, profiles of personal trainers, client success stories and tons of before-and-after photos of toned up members. But creating that content is just the first step.
We also can target that content on social media platforms – in this case, most likely Facebook and Instagram – to audience demographics that are most likely to be members using social media advertising.
And so, they’ll find a regular stream of content, perhaps two to three times a week, that reminds them that it’s not only a good idea to keep healthy and fit, but that your fitness center is a place that can make that happen.
Yes, this tactic is actually a hybrid of PR and advertising, but it’s part and parcel to how we go about executing an effective content program. And by the way, if we are successful in generating some of those traditional media placements, we’ll populate those stories on social platforms as well.
Next time you are contemplating advertising or public relations, think of PR as more than simply earned media. Content marketing programs can now give you the frequency and targeting that make us just as effective as traditional advertising, and for a much lower cost.
The author Suresh Rangarajan is consultant and senior VP, Concept Public Relations, an integrated communications consultancy. Views expressed are the author's own.